BANGKOK — Thailand's military leader has asked the media not to report on human trafficking in Thailand without considering how the news will affect the country's seafood industry and reputation abroad.
"Please don't escalate this news," Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha told reporters in reference to Channel 3 report about Thai nationals who have been duped into slaving on Thai fishing boats in Indonesian waters.
Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha at the Royal Thai Air Force base in Bangkok, 25 March 2015.
"The media should consider the impact the news will have on the country," he continued. "It may cause problems, and affect national security … If this news gets widely published, [it could raise] problems of human trafficking and IUU [Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing]."
Gen. Prayuth warned that if any news reports cause Thailand’s seafood industry to loses customers, "the people who published the news will have to be held responsible."
According to Gen. Prayuth, the government will summon the Channel 3 journalist, Thapanee Ietsrichai, who has been reporting on the plight of Thai men languishing on the slave ships.
"Let me tell you now, Thapanee will have to come see officials," said Gen. Prayuth.
Thailand, the third largest exporter of seafood in the world, has a long history of exploiting its workers, most of whom hail from neighboring countries like Myanmar and Cambodia. The men are often held captive on the ships, where they are beaten by captains and forced to work shifts as long as 22-hours.
The Associated Press published a investigative news report today detailing the abuse suffered by Burmese men on the ships, whose catches eventually end up in supermarkets around the world, including the United States.
In 2014, the US government downgraded Thailand to the lowest possible rank in its annual report on global human trafficking. The report cited the horrors documented in the fishing industry, and corruption among Thai officials.
Gen. Prayuth’s military government is hoping for a reversal of the downgrade in this year's report, which is expected to be released next month.
Thai officials say the government has taken many steps to improve its trafficking record, such as implementing tougher legislation to protect workers in the fishing industry, and forming new committees tasked with studying and eradicating trafficking in all of its forms.
The government is also planning to install fishing boats with vessel monitoring systems (VMS) in order prevent ships from illegally entering Indonesian waters.
"The previous government never did anything about it, but today this government is doing everything," Gen. Prayuth said this morning, citing a recent effort to rescue 26 Thai men from the island of Ambon off of Indonesia. "You want me to complete everything quickly and boot me out, but how is that possible?"
Since seizing power in a coup last May, Gen. Prayuth has developed a prickly relationship with the press, who he regularly admonishes for not "cooperating" with his administration. Gen. Prayuth explained his personal philosophy on media ethics in a speech marking Thailand's National Media Day earlier this month.
"This morning, someone said the media needs to be impartial. No. I don't think they should say that. It isn't good," Gen. Prayuth said to reporters on 5 March."What they should say is, first, media should report news that is factual. Second, they should support the government's efforts to move the country forward. And third, they should help reduce conflicts in society, and create understanding about the government's policies that give clear results."
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